What can we learn from top athletes

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What exactly happens in your head when a defeat looms?

Defeat and mistakes hurt first and foremost. From a neuropsychological point of view, this is a real, painful stimulus, like when I hit my foot. You realize that you are not reaching a set goal, for which in most cases you have prepared for a long time and invested a lot of time. It's emotionally painful.

How we deal with it depends a lot on the upbringing and the experiences we have had in our lives. If, for example, I tried to keep mistakes and failures away from me in childhood, then I may have learned very late to deal with setbacks. As a result, I try to avoid, deny, or suppress such situations. But such situations happen a lot in life. We all know and experience this in everyday life.
Those who are very good at dealing with mistakes, setbacks or failures see light again very quickly at the end of the tunnel after a rather short “grief phase”. They analyze why they failed and learn from this experience what they can do differently next time. True to the motto "fail, analyze & learn". Afterwards, they quickly set new goals that motivate them.

There is also a phenomenon in psychology that we call cognitive dissonance. Simply put, it is an uncomfortable emotional state. It arises from the fact that two memories, wishes, attitudes or perceptions are in conflict. We humans strive to resolve this inner conflict in order to regain an inner balance.

For example, with my company I have the firm goal of bringing a product onto the market this year. However, I notice that this does not work. This is of course an uncomfortable feeling. So I'm looking for an explanation to resolve this. So I could say to myself that next year I will bring two products to market that will be even better. This will resolve the "failure" this year and make me feel better. So, as an entrepreneur, I'm trying to compensate for the “cognitive dissonance” in this example by setting myself a new goal.

What are the most common mechanisms for dealing with such cognitive dissonances?

Everyone reacts differently here. There are people who suppress and ignore the problem or even really forget about it and just move on.

Others look for new information and new perspectives to resolve this cognitive dissonance and confirm their point of view. Smokers, for example, know very well that smoking is unhealthy. If you look specifically for smokers who have gotten very old and have remained healthy, this fact is felt to be refuted. You have confirmed your own point of view and resolved the cognitive dissonance.

And finally, wishes, intentions or attitudes can be given up or adjusted in order to be able to deal better with the unpleasant emotional state.

What can ways or mechanisms be to take your pulse from time to time to see whether you are on the right track as an entrepreneur? Can you build your own "warning system"?

A good way to do this is to set internal goals. In other words, clear, objectively measurable milestones such as sales for a month or the achievement of specific sales targets.

It is important that these milestones leave no room for interpretation and that it is clear what will happen if they are not achieved. According to the SMART formula, suitable goals are specific, measurable, adaptable, realistic and time-bound.

Of course, it also helps to develop scenarios of what happens if you don't reach your milestones and, above all, how to deal with them. So-called "if-then strategies" help. What exactly do I do when situation XY occurs. If I run through this at a point in time when everything is going well and design concrete action scenarios, I will be able to react completely differently and better in the supposed emergency situation. This can be compared to a pilot who knows exactly what to do in order to land the aircraft safely in the event of an impending crash. He has trained this situation a thousand times and is well prepared for it.

And of course I should be very aware of the consequences that I will face as an entrepreneur if I completely ignore my early warning system. These are primarily questions of liability - be it with private assets or even as a person with criminal consequences. This shouldn't lead to my acting anxiously as an entrepreneur. Rather, it should guide my decisions in order to be successful in the long term.

In sport, defeats are more common and clearer. After 90 minutes a result is fixed in football and the player has no influence on it. It is often different with an entrepreneur. How can you notice yourself that you are in one of the above mechanisms and misjudge the situation?

This is difficult. Of course, we especially want to be successful as entrepreneurs. That drives you and releases the necessary energy. So it's a great strength. Without this energy, ideas that lead to an undertaking would quickly have died again. A successful athlete or entrepreneur therefore has the gift of being able to distinguish the important from the unimportant and to focus 100% on them.

But if the business is not going well in the long term or the business model does not prove to be sustainable, I also need to know when the end is. If you miss this point in time, we might convince ourselves that there is still a chance that the one big order will come or that the customer, on whom we have been working for ages, will still sign.

An outside perspective helps here. This can be a qualified advisor or, to start with, someone from your circle of friends with whom you can speak openly. It is important that they get all the information and that they can clearly analyze the situation on this basis. In addition, it only works if you really listen to this person and believe - also and especially if the statement is: You, this can no longer become anything.

Here it can help to set new goals. Often the first impulse is to dig in. The faster you get back into activity and pursue a new goal, the better it is for you and for the company.

In competitive sport, we are talking about two behavioral preferences of athletes: the action-oriented and the position-oriented athlete.

If the situation-oriented athlete has lost the final of the German championship, he closes himself off and mourns this defeat for a long time. He gets lost in the details that decided the game from his point of view, and thus drags himself further and further down.

The action-oriented athlete very quickly goes into a clear analysis and then back into action and action. Usually manages to pick up speed again and set new goals very quickly.

What techniques are used in sport to catch a situation-oriented athlete and to help him deal with the situation?

With situation-oriented athletes you can work on classifying the defeat, processing it and drawing your lessons from it. The focus is on what I can do differently next time. You help him tick off the topic faster and not ponder too long why the whole thing failed and who is to blame.

Then you could start defining a new objective. What is the next challenge I want to face? The point here is to focus your attention on the future and not get too stuck in the past.

What are the approaches to get back on your feet after a defeat?

The most important thing is a clear and thorough analysis. But don't stop there when you've found all the reasons why it didn't work. It should also be analyzed with the same meticulousness what worked well and what can be built on. That changes the view and turns a defeat into real learning.

Then comes the step of really ticking off the chapter. It often helps to carry out a symbolic act or ritual:

We did that once with an ice hockey team that had a really bad start to the season. As a team, we discussed everything that needs to change. When it was clear to everyone how things should go in the future, we pressed a symbolic reset button together. With such a ritual as the end of a thorough analysis, you can really set a turning point and start over with new energy.

The legislature now offers numerous possibilities to discretely reorganize a company with and without bankruptcy. Thus, the options for a restart have become significantly better and easier in the meantime. A reorganization of a company or a bankruptcy is certainly not processed as quickly as a defeat in sport - but it is no longer an issue that you have to lug around your whole life.

What are other rituals that can be used here to make the new start "tangible"?

I wouldn't entirely agree to that. Just imagine that an Olympian prepares four years or more for his highlight, the Olympic Games, and subordinates everything to this goal - putting his studies on hold, postponing family planning and neglecting friendships, especially in those sports that don't run on television every weekend and who do not have professional status, the Olympia platform can mean a high level of awareness and, as a result, urgently needed sponsorship money - or the elimination of it after a poor performance. Failure in sport is given a weighting comparable to that of bankruptcy. It can also be about livelihoods.

Apart from that, however, in sports these can be small rituals that are done individually or in a team in order to tick off mistakes better. A professional golfer, for example, once set an imaginary line over which he walked after every bad shot. As soon as he crossed that line, the failed blow was ticked off.

As an entrepreneur, it makes sense to really set a deadline that is linked to something positive. Example: “Today I finish the analysis of the mistakes and learnings by 1 pm. Then the whole process goes to the archive and I take my wife out for lunch ”. It doesn't have to be anything big, the only important thing is the signal to the brain: Now it's complete.

Another way to put a defeat into perspective is to relate it. In addition to the company, there are many other aspects in life that are important: family, friends, sports, hobbies, etc. This can help to classify and weight defeat or failure.

I imagine that to be very difficult in the acute situation. Above all, entrepreneurs often face existential fear due to the loss of income or even debts. How can you start here?

This is indeed a very difficult situation and it also takes time to grasp and process emotionally. At the same time, however, you also have to “keep functioning” and make decisions.

It can help here if you remember past defeats and, above all, how you overcame them. It shows you that you can get up again and that you can go on and on. In addition, remembering successes from the past helps to straighten up again. There are a lot of resources in that to be able to deal with the situation differently. But if you are already in this difficult situation, then it is difficult. A look from the outside, for example a coach as a sparring partner, can help.

Against existential fear, it also helps to think specifically about alternatives. People who have run a company have a broad set of skills that are often in great demand. This also enables the interpretation in the head to be reversed: “Away from bankruptcy or restructuring” becomes “Towards something new”. This is a crucial point in focusing attention. Do I focus on getting rid of something or on what I am aiming for in the future.

A defeat is not always set, but can sometimes be averted. What can I do to mobilize all my strength again? What's my inner monologue here?

A penalty taker who gets to the point and can't see the ball going into the net in his mind's eye shouldn't shoot. The more clearly you visualize the success of your actions, the more likely it will occur. So my inner dialogue should be: "I'll shoot that right in the top right corner". Not: "Oh dear, I hope it won't hit the bar again like last time". Then the thought quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is exactly what you practice in mental training. A skier imagines the racetrack in detail and goes through it in his head before the descent. So he mentally drives every single curve, every hump. It has been scientifically proven that just imagining the action activates exactly the same regions in the brain as it does when it is actually performed. An action plan is memorized very precisely in the memory even before it is actually carried out. The more often you play through this, the clearer the plan of action becomes. So you can think ahead about your activity and success and activate the neural networks.

In business this means: Take action and imagine your actions and the positive outcome - very specifically. This can be a difficult conversation with an employee, a speech in front of a large audience or another challenge.

But here, too, the following applies: Those who do not achieve their objectively set goals should admit this and act. The mere idea of ​​a positive outcome cannot save a company.

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